A rugged paradise with famous drummers, bathtub boats, and a cave of spooky Jizo figures

Sado Island in Niigata prefecture

Coastline of Sado Island
Sado is everything a remote island should be—plummeting cliffs surrounded by crystal clear water—but you can also do some things here that you can’t do in any other part of Japan

These days, Sado Island is an hour offshore by hydrofoil, but in olden times it would take a lot longer to get to the place where radical monks and other troublemakers got sent when they caused too much trouble for the powers-that-be. But this ruggedly gorgeous spot isn’t your average run-of-the-mill purgatory—it’s got steep cliffs bursting with day lilies, turquoise bays with water so clear you can see every creature scuttling below, and a cave filled with spooky Jizo figures looking out for the souls of lost children. It’s got fabulous local pottery, gold mines, sake breweries, and is also the home of the world-famous taiko drumming group, Kodo.

Taraibune bathtub boats on Sado Island
Women dressed in traditional fishing garb offer rides in the tarai-bune boats that were used to maneuver in and out of the narrow coves around the island (you may recognize these if you’re a “Spirited Away” fan!)
Daylilies blooming on the hills of Sado Island
In the summertime, the hills at Onogame are covered with day lilies
Daylilies blooming on the hills of Sado Island
And I do mean COVERED, in the kind of profusion carefully tended gardens can only dream of
Daylilies blooming on rocks on Sado Island
But this area also has a trail leading down the rocky cliffs…
Stones piled in memorials for lost children on Sado Island
…to a place where people have commemorated the souls of lost children for generations. Each pile of stones marks a visit by loved ones, and the pinwheels send perpetual prayers toward heaven
Jizo statues offered in a cave memorial for lost children on Sado Island
The cave is filled with all styles and ages of Jizo figures—the Buddhist saint of lost children and travelers—some quite old
Jizo statues offered in a cave memorial for lost children on Sado Island
And some newer. You can tell this is an active pilgrimage site by how fresh and colorful many of the offerings are.
Rice growing on Sado Island
Along the way, tiny rice paddies have been carved from the steep hillsides, the harvest from each of them earmarked for a particular sake brewery (and the sake, by the way, is EXCELLENT)
Narrow pedestrian street in a town on Sado Island
There aren’t many towns on Sado Island, but they are exceedingly picturesque
Rock weighing down a roof on Sado Island
Still built the old-fashioned way, with stones to keep the roofs from blowing off in typhoon season
Gold statue of Nichiren
This forbidding-looking fellow was one of the more notorious exiles to Sado—Nichiren spread a radical sect of Buddhism that taught the ills afflicting the populace were a reflection of the corruption in society and its leaders, which (as you can imagine) did not endear him to the ruling elite.
Nichiren temple garden on Sado Island
He did start a mean temple or two in his three years on Sado, though, and this especially serene and gorgeous place is the main one.
Nichiren temple pagoda on Sado Island
On the grounds is a five-story pagoda typical of all Nichiren temples, the very kind that are paraded through the streets in miniature during the Oeshiki Ikegami Festival of 10,000 Lanterns in Tokyo in mid-October every year
Sado Island pottery
The local pottery is especially lovely—smooth and delicate, it’s made from fine red clay that isn’t glazed, but becomes burnished to a shiny patina with daily use
Potter making Sado Island pottery
It’s of course possible to visit a kiln and see one of the local masters at work
Coastline of Sado Island
Sado being an island, the local delicacies mostly come from the sea. These are seaweed “farms”…
Woman selling dried seaweed on Sado Island
…which produce the familiar wakame that is dried and used in miso soup all over Japan, but you can sometimes buy freshly harvested and dried seaweed at the Sado equivalent of roadside “fruit stands”
Sazae molluscs on Sado island
Another local specialty is the giant mollusks known as sazae (which can get as big as your fist). These grow in the waters all around Sado, but aren’t harvested everywhere for reasons you might not guess—the ones near the Jizo cave, for example, are thought to be in habited by the spirits of the lost children honored in the cave, so eating them is definitely not done. (Photo thanks to the Sado Island Taiko Center, because I neglected to take photos of the one local food I wouldn’t have minded trying once, but was served at every meal INCLUDING BREAKFAST)
Soba noodles on Sado Island
Don’t leave before sampling the local version of buckwheat soba noodles—On Sado Island, the hand-cut ones are a little wider and flatter than on the mainland, and they are delish, even with nothing on them but green onions and soba sauce
Coastline of Sado Island
Wherever you go, there are stunning coastline views that rival any in the world. Whether you’re just driving around…
Coastline of Sado Island
…or stop and hike down for a closer look. Natural beauty is everywhere, and this place feels much wilder and less-developed than most parts of Japan. Inland hikes dish up the kind of spectacular waterfalls and lush greenery that make every destination worth it.

Sadogashima is also the home of numerous sake breweries (with tours and tastings), a museum about the gold mines that flourished here in the Edo Period, and a taiko drumming center that is run by the world-famous taiko group, Kodo. If you’ve never experienced taiko drumming, you should. Each performance is as much of a dance as it is music.

This is just an amateur group performing at the Nezu Shrine in Tokyo—the most famous taiko group in the world is an order of magnitude more fabulous!
Taiko drumming experience at Sado Island Taiko Center
If you’d like information about having a taiko drumming experience or taking in a performance, info is on the Sado Island Taiko Center website. (Photo thanks to the Sado Island Taiko Center)

Here’s where Sado Island is:

Map showing where Sado Island is

Here’s how to get to Sado Island from Tokyo:

Route to Sado Island

Once you get to Niigata, of course you can take a cab instead of walking to the port! At the other end, there are various options for getting around. There are no subways or trains, but a lot of buses, both guided and regular transportation. Info in English is here.

Here’s what Sado Island looks like:

Sado Island map

Google Map and English visitor guide for Sado Island

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and preferred arrival time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Tokyo Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it.

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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